Legendary Indian athlete Milkha Singh has died at the age of 91 from complications due to COVID-19.

Singh tested positive for Covid on 20 May. His wife, Nirmal Kaur, a former volleyball captain, had died of the virus days earlier at the age of 85.

Singh’s son, Jeev Milkha Singh, is also involved in sport as a top level professional golfer. He was the first ever Indian to join the European tour in 1998.

Milkha Singh – The Flying Sikh
by Sanyan Bagha

The sprinter is considered one of India’s first sports superstars and was nicknamed the ‘Flying Sikh’.

The name came about from a conversation with former Pakistan president, General Ayub Khan, following a race with Pakistani sprinter Abdul Khaliq in 1960.

Singh had been invited to take part in the 200m at an International Athletic competition in Lahore. Having not returned to Pakistan since fleeing after his father was murdered in 1947, he initially refused to go, but was eventually persuaded by the  then President of India – Jawaharal Nehru.

In an interview in 2016, Singh said “Sixty-thousand people were sitting in the stadium. They had come to watch the race between Abdul Khaliq and Milkha Singh. When I entered, the whole stadium reverberated with Abdul Khaliq’s name.

“When we were passing General Ayub, that was the moment I started catching up with Khaliq. I beat him by 90 to 145 yards.

“We had another good runner, Makkhan Singh from India, who came second, and Khaliq was third.

When General Ayub was called to award the medals, he told me in Punjabi, ‘Milkha, you were not running, you were flying. Pakistan will from now on call you the ‘Flying Sikh.’

Today, if I am known as the ‘Flying Sikh’ all over the world, it is because of Pakistan and General Ayub.”

This was not the first time Singh had beaten Khaliq either. Arguably his most famous win over the Pakistani sprinter was at the 1958 Tokyo Asian Games, in which Singh says his victory was ‘sheer luck’

The sprinter said “When I reached Tokyo, my coach introduced me to Khaliq and told him to be careful of me since I could be rather dangerous in the 200-metre race. He paid no attention to it. He won the 100-metre race. I won the 400-metre race, and the competition was then for the 200 metre title.

“The winner would be known as the best athlete in Asia.

“During that race, my left leg muscle got pulled. It was sheer luck that I fell on the finishing tape a fraction of a second before my competitor did.”

1958 proved to be a successful year for Singh.

He set records for the 200m and 400m in the National Games of India, which were held in Cuttack, and won gold medals in the same events at the Asian Games.

He then went on to win a gold medal in the 400m at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games with a time of 46.6 seconds. This made him the first gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games from independent India. Up until 2014, the Flying Sikh was the only Indian male to have won an individual athletics gold medal at those Games.

In the 1960 Rome Olympics, Singh finished fourth in the 400m final, missing out on a bronze medal by a 0.1 second.

Singh said “Since it was a photo finish, the announcements were held up.

“The suspense was excruciating. I knew what my fatal error was: After running perilously fast in lane five, I slowed down at 250 metres. I could not cover the lost ground after that — and that cost me the race.

“After the death of my parents, that is my worst memory

“I kept crying for days.”

However, he bounced back from this to go on and win gold medals in the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games in the 400m and 4x400m and a silver in the 1964 National Games on India, held in Calcutta.

Singh had a Bollywood biopic released about him in 2013 named after his father’s last words to him, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Run Milkha Run).